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Four Steps to Determining the Morality of Abortion (5 of 8)

Many object to my conclusion that life begins at conception.  The central objection is that we can’t observe a soul, to know when it begins. However, we can observe when certain life-sustaining functions begin. Therefore only when the fetus functions in these ways can we say it is alive. Yet this is well past the point of conception. So life must not begin at conception.

There are at least three responses to this objection.


Response 1: This Objection Confuses “Knowing” and “Being”

First, this objection confuses what we happen to know (epistemology—“the order of knowing”) and what actually is the case (ontology—“the order of being”). It assumes that our knowledge of something makes it what it is. The objector is saying the personhood of the fetus is dependent on when we know that it is functioning in certain ways. Therefore, before we can observe and therefore know this, the fetus is not a person.

But surely this can’t be right. As medical technology advances, we are able to observe functions in utero at earlier and earlier stages. Does this mean that the “reality” of the beginning of the person begins earlier and earlier as our technology develops? Certainly not. The reality is what it is, no matter how sophisticated our technology is to detect it.

The absurdity of this objection can be seen by an analogy. Suppose I claim that no one lives at 38o34’40.0”N, 28o40’43.9”W, because I have never observed anyone at those coordinates. Yet I decide to sail there. Upon arrival I find Portugal’s Faial Island, inhabited by citizens of Portugal. Does my new knowledge of these people make them suddenly exist? Certainly not. They existed long before I had any knowledge of them. Their being (ontology) was not dependent on my knowing (epistemology). So it is with life in the womb—it is what it is, and is not dependent on what we are or are not able to observe.


Response 2: This Objection assumes Scientism

The reason “knowing” and “being” are so often confused is that many assume we can only know something if we can empirically observe it (if we can know it “scientifically”). Hence, if there is no observation of human life in utero, then there is no scientific proof of a person, and therefore we may conclude the fetus is not a person, but only a part of the mother’s body. Implicit is the assumption that the non-scientific proofs I offered in my last post don’t tell us anything about when life begins. As one respondent to the Washington Post article “Roe Isn’t Just About Women’s Rights. It’s About Everyone’s Personal Liberty” post put it, “The scientific fact is precisely the opposite: the fetus is not an individual, at all.” 

This epistemology assumes that all, or at least the surest knowledge, comes through science. It is known as Scientism. It is a horrible epistemology, but still widely accepted. I discussed it, and its fatal flaws, here. Yet as long as it is assumed, this confusion between epistemology and ontology will persist.


Response 3: This Objection Assumes All Functional Capacities Must Be Expressed To Be Real

Another response to the Washington Post article cited above asserted:

 Abortion ends the development of a fetus. It doesn’t end a life. It ends the potential for a fetus to develop further. An acorn is not an oak tree. There are many things that stop the acorn from becoming a tree. Abortion is just like that.

In other words, a fetus may have the potential to develop into a person. But at its current stage it is not yet a person. The underlying assumption is that the only functional capacities that exist are those that are expressed.

Yet why assume this? There seems to be good reason to believe we all have functional capacities that we are not currently expressing, because they are dependent on us first functioning in other ways. In other words, capacities (the abilities to function in certain ways) come in hierarchies. Lower-order capacities must first be expressed in order to express higher-order capacities.

For example, a functional ability (capacity) I currently posses is the ability to speak English. In conversation daily this capacity is “realized” (exemplified, being expressed) as I converse in English. Such a capacity is a “first-order” capacity—a capacity that is currently realized or realizable.

However, I have more capacities than just these first-order capacities. For instance, I do not now have the (first-order) capacity to speak German. If you ask me right now to have a conversation in German, I cannot do so. Thus, this ability is not currently realizable. However, I could develop this ability (first-order capacity) to speak German. I could take a language class, memorize German vocabulary, learn the syntax of the language, and so on, until I was eventually able to speak German fluently. Therefore, although I don’t currently have the first-order capacity to speak German, I have a second-order capacity to speak German: I have the capacity to have the capacity.

Pressing further, this second-order capacity requires yet higher-order capacities—such as the capacity to use language to express myself, and so on. So it turns out that capacities come in a hierarchy, some of which must be realized before others can be expressed.

As a second example, consider someone who has smoked two packs of cigarettes a day since he was 18. Does he have the capacity to stop smoking? If you mean can he just quit today—if he has the first-order capacity to quit—then no. The addiction is just too strong. However, he has the capacity to have the capacity to quit. He has the capacity to attend classes, wean himself off nicotine by chewing Nicorette gum, etc. In other words, he has certain higher-order capacities which, if he chooses to function in these ways, will lead to him eventually being able to express his first-order capacity of “kicking the habit.” So it is with all habits we want to acquire or quit.

These two examples show it is false to say of me that I do not have a certain capacity simply because I am not now able to function in that way. It may be that I have the capacity at a second (or higher) level, and certain things must develop before I am able to express that capacity as an observable (first-order) function.

If this is true for all of us who have been born, it is equally true for those who have yet to be born. The fetus has the capacity to live, grow, love, work, do algebra, ride a bike, and everything else a fully mature person can do. However, at this stage of his or her development these capacities are still second, third, or fourth-order capacities. The capacities (functions) cannot yet be expressed. Yet they are none-the-less present, and given the right amount of time and the right environment, they will be expressed as the person grows, is born, and continues to mature. This objection misses this critical distinction between first and higher-order capacities, and is a third reason the objection fails.



For these three reasons this objection fails, and we still have good reason to believe a person begins at conception. The only alternative is a functional definition of personhood, discussed briefly above. Next week I’ll discuss this view in more detail and highlight additional problems it faces.

Until then, grace and peace.


For further reading I suggest Body & Soul: Human Nature & the Crisis in Ethics by J.P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae.

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